Reviews /

How to Teach Grown-Ups about Pluto

Authored by Dean Regas
Illustrated by Aaron Blecher
Published by Brittanica Books

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This fun and fact-packed little book takes a sly, sideways look at the solar system, entertaining its young (and older) readers with its humorous take on the science of the universe.

If you’re reading this review, chances are you are a grown-up. And I’m afraid we are the butt of many of the jokes here (as you could guess from the title (“Your grown-up may still be confused” the book tells us, half-way through!) Well, we did grow up in ancient times, where science wasn’t as advanced as it is now and our teachers only taught us what they knew at the time to be true. Unfortunately, at least regarding Pluto, our learning was WRONG. Pluto is not a planet. (Though we were still first with the ‘best’ jokes of course and I see they crop up perennially fresh even here – “‘Uranus is wiggling’…fnar, fnar”)

One of the book’s many strengths is how it takes a ‘small’ focus in a huge topic. By drawing attention to Pluto alone, so many of the basic facts about the solar system are learned too – orbits, moons, celestial bodies, the history of planet discovery… In a storm of books about the solar system, How to teach Grown-Ups… is reassuringly and sensibly anchored a cogent, focused narrative that follows Pluto’s story throughout. In many ways, it is the book I would use to introduce the topic of Space in upper Key Stage 2 as it guides and introduces young readers through some potentially baffling material that in other books becomes overwhelming. (Look at how brilliantly it finally summarises the Classification of Planets on page 54!).

Kids do deserve the full picture and there is remarkable detail to be enjoyed in the story of the grinding decision-making around Pluto’s status, including first-hand, up-to-the-minute recounts of conversations with Mike Brown, a scientist hard at work discovering bodies in the Kuiper Belt, Pluto’s ‘homeland’. When I have told my classes about existence of Makemake and Eris, they have been visibly excited – more things that are out there?! – and this excitement is what inspires children of today to become scientists and discoverers themselves. To see this excitement in book form (as we do with Regas’ book) is just what the astronomer ordered!

The general tone is light; the facts authentic but breezily introduced – you want to keep reading and it’s effortless to do so. There is great depth to the discussion though, with some pretty complex ideas and the professional difficulties of astronomy expertly described throughout. Very occasionally, the ‘breeze’  results in a slightly ‘surface’ or even flippant coverage of detail: one ‘Fast Fact’ tells us that ‘Although it would be really cool if they did, Neptune and Pluto will never run into each other” yet gives no explanation why, doubly intriguing when the diagram right next to the fact shows the paths of the two bodies crossing at four different places (“How do scientists know that they won’t cross? Why wouldn’t they ever cross?”). I also found some parts a little clunky in terms of the aim for the humour – the Five Stages of Grief, even when transposed into amusing pictures, is not what I think many children would ‘get’, though maybe that’s the point – maybe this is a book for grown-ups to share with their children, to teach them covertly while at the same time having a laugh together.

The illustrations in How to teach Grown-Ups…  are there to teach (‘I’m eccentric,’ cries a raspberry-blowing Pluto as it flies round its elliptic orbit – spot on!) but generally to entertain. They will help to attract and keep the attention of younger readers and are the perfect foil to the equally entertaining (though determinedly factual) prose.

Diversity is sensitively clear in the pictures throughout with different ethnicities and disability portrayed – so important for every child to see themselves positively represented, each to see themselves as a possible scientist of tomorrow. There is also a good portion of the book given over to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s work in the field and in the fleeting discussion of Neptune’s discovery, both author and illustrator ensure that Caroline Hershel is deservedly recognised alongside her brother’s fame.

Overall, a book that, personally, I have very much enjoyed and from which I have learned a lot to put right my own sadly lacking education(!), though its tone may not be everyone’s cup of tea. A very good primer, though, that wears its learning lightly and one that I’m certain will be very popular with children (and even their misguided grown-ups) everywhere.